07 April 2003
"Our Vulnerable Seaport Security," by Senator Dianne Feinstein
(Op-ed column in April 7 San Francisco Chronicle) (890)
(This column by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who
sits on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee and is the ranking
member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and
Homeland Security, first appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle April
7 and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)
Avoiding Terrorist Attack
Our vulnerable seaport security
By Dianne Feinstein
Last fall, the CIA, FBI, Office of Homeland Security and leading
international trade businesses participated in a war game focused on a
single question: What would happen if terrorists launched a major
attack through one of our nation's 361 seaports?
The answer: The attack could result in significant casualties,
economic losses of up to $58 billion and a stock market drop of more
than 500 points. By contrast, the West Coast labor dispute last year
cost the U.S. economy an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion.
U.S. seaports are a gaping hole in our nation's system of defense
against terrorism. Security at our airports has been beefed up, but we
need to do much more to increase the security of our seaports. This is
of special importance to the Bay Area, given the volume of goods that
move through the Port of Oakland and the petroleum products and other
chemicals destined for the oil depots of San Pablo and Suisun bays.
But increasing seaport security poses serious challenges. It is simply
impossible to inspect all the containers that go through our ports
every year. In 2002, for instance, approximately 13 million containers
came into U.S. ports -- yet only 2 percent to 3 percent of these
containers were inspected. In almost every case, these inspections
occurred after the containers arrived in the United States. This
translates into millions of tons of cargo moving through our ports,
with absolutely no scrutiny.
Imagine if a container holding up to 60,000 pounds of explosives (the
amount used to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City) slipped
undetected into a harbor and were detonated -- blowing up a ship, a
bridge, or an entire seaport.
Or worse, picture a nuclear device or radiological "dirty bomb" no
bigger than a suitcase installed in a container, shipped to the United
States and exploded at a port or somewhere within the interior of the
country. Even if the container were inspected, it would be too late.
The weapon would already be in the United States, most likely near a
major population center.
Beyond the human toll, such an attack would likely mean that every
container in the system would have to be inspected to ensure another
bomb wasn't out there. One estimate suggests that it would take six
months to screen all of the containers in the system on any given day.
The threat is real: Al Qaeda has already targeted American interests
at and through seaports in the past -- most notably in the October
2000 attack against the U.S. destroyer Cole -- and may do so again in
Despite the threats and obstacles, there is much we can do to close
the holes in the system. Indeed, the key to improving security at our
seaports is to use our limited resources to inspect those containers
that pose the greatest risk to our security and to screen them before
they arrive in the United States.
Last year, Congress approved seaport security legislation that in my
view does not go far enough; our ports remain vulnerable. That is why
I have introduced new legislation with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., aimed at
preventing terrorist attacks at or through our seaports and
prosecuting those who may perpetrate such an attack. Under the
authority of the new Department of Homeland Security and in
coordination with local ports, this legislation would give inspectors
and federal law enforcement the tools they need to:
Establish a comprehensive container risk-profiling system to allow
U.S. authorities to focus their limited inspection and enforcement
capabilities on high-risk cargo. Under this system, U.S. Customs
Service inspectors would look at all relevant information (where the
container came from, who owns it, where it passed through) to
determine if it raises a red flag. If it's high risk, they would
Require the federal government to come up with a broader plan to
inspect high-risk shipping containers overseas, before they reach the
Improve security of individual containers and the physical security at
seaports. And close a number of loopholes in our criminal laws,
ensuring that terrorists are held fully accountable for any attacks.
For example, this bill would make it a crime, punishable by a maximum
sentence of life (or the death penalty, if death results from the
crime), for blowing up or destroying a ship or marine terminal.
The bottom line: We must do a better job of inspecting cargo that
could put our nation and our citizens at risk. The only way to achieve
this is comprehensively -- from the moment cargo is loaded overseas to
its arrival in the United States.
A year and a half has passed since our nation was struck by terrorists
from the sky. We can't afford to wait for a similar -- or greater --
tragedy to occur at or through our ports.
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)